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Seeds of Change

hands-holding-plant.jpgWhen I had a chance to meet with folks from the ONE campaign and Bread for the World recently, the conversation kept returning to “the Farm Bill” – which is up for reauthorization this year. Since this legislation only comes up for consideration every five years, this year’s actions have long term impact. And while we have a lot of work coming up this Fall with Iraq and FISA, the wide ranging impacts of the Farm Bill make it another critical piece of legislation and one I thought we could take some time this morning to learn a bit about.

A broad coalition of groups have been pushing for changes to the Farm Bill to make it a more effective tool for fighting poverty – here and in developing countries – and to make Ag policy more equitable. They’ve worked hard to get a Fairness Amendment passed in the House but the vote went against them 117 to 309. (You can see how your representative voted here.)

In mid-September, the bill starts to move through the Senate and the coalition is hoping that we’ll join in and help to push for better legislation to pass the Senate.

So what is in this Farm Bill and why does it matter so much? Shawda Hines of Bread for the World put together a great set of info points for us and she says it much better than I could:

This year Congress has been busy reauthorizing the U.S. farm bill. This legislation is about farms and farmers, but its scope is also much broader than agriculture. Farm bill policies and priorities touch everyone in this country and millions of people overseas–from food producers to consumers, and especially to people who struggle to put food on the table at all.

Programs included in the farm bill are:

  • The Food Stamp Program, which helps 27 million low-income Americans with food assistance each month. (An estimated half of all U.S. citizens have used food stamps at some point in their lifetime.)
  • Conservation programs that encourage farmers to be good stewards of the land and help curb negative environmental impacts of the modern agricultural practices.
  • Rural development programs to help struggling rural communities, which actually have higher poverty rates than urban areas.
  • The international school lunch program, which provides lunch to kids in developing countries as an incentive to attend school.
  • Direct payments, loans and other forms of support to farmers who qualify.

The existing farm bill is outdated and fails to help the people who need it the most—struggling rural communities, farmers of modest means and hungry and poor people.

  • Only a third of U.S. farmers even receive commodity payments–including fruit and veggie growers, who are not eligible at all. Of those who do get farm subsidies, the top 16% of farms receive 66% of payments and have average net worth of $1.8 million. (Meanwhile, a family of three must earn less $1,800 a month to receive food stamp benefits.)
  • Our current commodity payment system supports a “get big or get out” business model. Our policies encourage overproduction, drive up land prices and force small-scale farmers out of business. Hundreds of rural communities are seeing record population loss, which results in fewer public serves, schools and hospitals in rural areas.
  • Unfortunately, the farm bill has remained a competition to balance interests for commodity groups—not to help struggling families, especially in rural areas. There are 400 “persistent poverty” counties in our country, where the poverty rate has exceeded 20% for the past three decades. Nine out of ten of these persistent poverty counties are rural. And many of these counties include the biggest subsidy recipients in the nation. Clearly, billions of dollars in commodity payments are not trickling down to the majority of rural residents.

Now is our chance to make historic improvements to the farm bill. The farm bill must:

  • Ensure low-income people an adequate, nutritious diet
  • Strengthen rural communities (people who live in rural America are more likely to experience hunger and poverty than their urban counterparts)
  • Help farmers earn a sufficient, sustainable livelihood and be good stewards of the land
  • Allow small-scale farmers in poor countries to earn their way out of poverty

What the House Farm Bill has touted as “reform” is not reform at all. Their bill would NOT:

  • end payments to millionaires.
  • shift significant resources to programs that help farm and rural families of modest means.
  • reduce the negative impact of our commodity subsidies on struggling rural families in Africa and other poor parts of the world.
  • guarantee additional funding for nutrition assistance to hungry families in this country.

Shawnda may be able to join us in comments this morning – and Bread for the World’s site has tons of more good information. And as we get closer to the Senate taking up the bill, the team from Bread for the World is interested in visiting with us and discussing how we can help press for better legislation – working to end hunger and ensure better food policies certainly seems like one of those core progressive values we firepups care deeply about.

If you haven’t heard of Bread for the World before, you might like to check out their site. They’ve been highly effective and true grassroots activists for many years. Based in church communities around the US, they’ve built a network that manages to cross a lot of traditional boundaries to fight for social justice. We can learn a lot from their organizing experience and great ideas – and hopefully work with them in the coming fight over the Farm Bill.

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Siun is a proud Old Town resident who shares her home with two cats and a Great Pyrenees. She’s worked in media relations and on the net since before the www, led the development of a corporate responsibility news service, and knows what a mult box is thanks to Nico. When not swimming in the Lake, she leads a team working on sustainability tools.

Email: media dot firedoglake at gmail dot com